Breaking News-Letter - June 23, 2004 - How Today’s News Will Impact Tomorrow’s Public Relations ™
June 23, 2004
Introduction to This Edition of Breaking News-Letter
“Breaking News-Letter” is intended to help PR professionals focus on those news-making events – at least the ones we can anticipate – which will prove so seductive to reporters, editors and producers that we will find it more difficult to pitch stories. This editorial fixation may be caused by news so compelling – as was 9/11 – that they can’t tear themselves away from CNN long enough to consider their own publications. But this editorial fixation may also occur because of relatively unimportant stories that nonetheless capture the media’s attention – the way the OJ trial did.
Either way, this is bad for those of us in PR, even if only because it’s harder than usual to gain our media contacts’ attention. We can’t always anticipate these events – “news” happens in spite of our best planning – but when we know something’s coming, it’s only prudent to plan ahead. And that’s the point of “Breaking News-Letter.”
There are several things we can do in times like this. One option is to find a tie-in to the news – though there are dangers to that, as reports from a colleagues (below) suggest. Another option is to undertake activities other than pitching during the time that the media is absorbed in the super-story or 800-pound-gorilla story.
When President Reagan died earlier this month, I sent all of my clients a note suggesting that most media pitching efforts would be less fruitful during his funeral week. I then mentioned that, for this reason, I was shifting my focus (on their behalf) to other PR-related activities (developing media lists, drafting case studies, etc.) that would put their resources to better use. I didn't actually stop my pitching activities entirely, but I did shift focus, and all of my clients seemed pleased to know I was pro-active – and considerate of their needs and resources.
That event, my actions and their positive outcome were all part of the springboard that led me to create this newsletter.
Pop-Culture Non-News Issues: The role of non-event stories on the media (“celebrity” trials, hot “reality shows,” etc.) has become increasingly important. These events – Scott Peterson’s trial is a perfect example – have no true societal impact, yet the media obsesses over these pop-culture “issues” to the detriment of other news coverage. If we are pitching one of the media obsessing over these non-event stories, be very much aware that we’re competing with a media “pack mentality” that will tend to push even important stories off the news pages.
Cycles in Business and News: There are cycles in Business, and cycles in News. Sometimes these overlap (as in the annual pre-Christmas and post-Christmas business news coverage, which almost seems as if it could be repeated verbatim each year, without modification). Identifying Business cycles (in our, or our clients’ market niches) can be a big help to us in identifying news opportunities – and doing so far enough in advance to give us a leg up in pitching our own story leads.
However, what too often happens is that easily-anticipated cycles reoccur seemingly without warning – and when a down time comes, PR people quietly start to panic, either because there's no business coming in (for themselves or their clients) or there’s no news being generated. What we should do is be aware of the pattern of cycles, in business and in the media, and plan accordingly.
Factoids: One way to work around the down-times in press news cycles is to find ways to “create” news when nothing is happening. “Factoids” – statistical snippets of news that so many in the media find irresistible – can be generated easily, and at low cost, by asking pointed questions in online (i.e., http://www.zoomerang.com –like) surveys, then packaging these factoids for use by the media.
For example, in almost any industry, we could ask:
1. Will your business prospects improve if President Bush is re-elected?
2. Will your business prospects get worse if President Bush is re-elected?
3. Will your business prospects improve if Senator Kerry is elected?
4. Will your business prospects get worse if Senator Kerry is elected?
5. Will your business prospects improve regardless of who is elected?
6. Will your business prospects get worse regardless of who is elected?
The answers to these six questions will certainly generate sufficient statistical “facts” to be the basis of media coverage that will mention our employer’s or client’s name, and position them as an organization that has taken the pulse of it’s own marketplace and knows what’s coming.
That’s an image most businesses and trade associations would be eager to have.
However, we don’t have to go with politics to generate newsworthy factoids – and as long as the information we present seems newsworthy, we can place it everywhere from the front page of USA Today to the news pages of any media we care to target.
Tying our pitches to breaking news: This seems like a slam-dunk idea, and when an 800-pound gorilla seems to be blocking our access to news coverage, it is a strong temptation. However, there are risks involved. A Canadian-based colleague and friend, Duncan Matheson, offers the following cautionary tale:
Duncan Matheson wrote: Ned, I think most of us try to tie our releases into current news to give them more media appeal, but the trick is how to do it effectively. Often we hit, but we have one particular example were we fell dead flat.
Our client had developed an interactive storybook based on Anne of Green Gables, the story of a girl growing up in rural Prince Edward Island. The book is considered a timeless classic is particularly popular among the Japanese. Our client was trying to capitalize on the fact with a product for girls, which we planned to launch in connection with the opening of the Confederation Bridge (the longest bridge ever built, connecting Prince Edward Island to mainland Canada. We had a girl who had professionally played Anne in costume and we were really to get our share of all the international media, and especially media from Japan, who would be there.
However, we hadn’t anticipated the world’s largest traffic jam, thousands of cars ready to cross this amazing 13-mile bridge. “Anne” and I ended up hopelessly stuck, until I stopped a motorcycled cop – they were the only people who could move – and persuaded him to take Anne to the site, in full costume, on the back of his cop motorcycle.
But I digress. The point is, we got next to nil for coverage. The tie-ins that we thought the media might run with simply did not resonate, with anybody. In retrospect, the bridge was the only story. As a PR effort, we would have been much better off if we hadn't seen this big collection of media from all over the world as “fertile ground.” It was anything but.
This week’s “Super-Story” seems to be Bill Clinton’s new book. It has monopolized talk shows, and – because of Mr. Clinton’s amazing popularity (and glimpses of that amazing temper, as seen on BBC) – the media doesn’t seem to be able to get enough of him and his story. If you’re pitching political, lifestyle or cultural news, and you’re not factoring the Clinton Impact, you’re making life harder for yourself than you need to.
This story will likely dominate the media (though it will start to fade in about 10 days) until the Democratic Party Convention – then it will either fade entirely or burst into new life. At this point, it looks like it could go either way – in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, all bets are off!
An 800-Pound Gorilla Story™
The Olympic Games in Athens, Greece – later this summer – will be a true 800-pound gorilla of an event. Sporting events and their results may be just part of the story. Much attention will focus on Athens itself, while other attention will look at how unprepared Greece is to host the games to which it gave birth. There are many business stories to be had about corporate sponsors (and maybe those companies that found ways to generate the benefits of sponsorship without the costs of investing in the games). There will be media debates about how the games are timed (or not timed) to play in US Prime Time. And all of that is without the terrorist angle. There will even be stories tying Athens (Greece) to Athens (Germany) – or at least there would be if I was pitching for the University of Georgia (which I helped get involved in the 1996 Atlanta games).
The more I hear about these games, the more convinced I become that this will be the sleeper story of the summer – with the media satiated by American Presidential politics (and their audiences growing bored by the longest campaign in history), they will turn on Athens, Greece and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games with a ravenous hunger.
This will be a great time to pitch Olympics-themed stories, but take heed of Duncan Matheson’s cautionary tale – make sure the stories really do relate. Or, the Olympics might be a good time for that summer vacation you’ve been trying to schedule.
Seasonal Gorilla Stories
There will be a few seasonal “gorillas” – stories mostly of short duration that nonetheless will capture the media’s attention for a bit. Absent any shocking terrorist stories (or an unexpected economic crash), look for the media to briefly fixate on things like:
The Major League Baseball All Star Game – July 13
Just before the election, the World Series – starting October 23
The ever-earlier start of the National Football League season – August 9
That increasingly moving-target event, the fall TV program premiere season
We can also expect the media to continue to obsess over major “trials” – Scott Petersen, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson – that have no real news value (in the sense of breaking legal ground) but which will dominate the media as they attempt to score another full-frontal OJ.
Making use of the Calendar:
You can use this calendar here (not shown in the blog edition of this Breaking News-Letter, but available online at http://www.barnettmarcom.com) as a template to plug in local “gorilla” and “super-story” items for your own use. These might include local mayoral elections, festivals, St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, etc.). If you’d like a template, I’ll be glad to send you a copy of the calendar in WORD. Just drop me a line at email@example.com and I’ll send you one as an attachment.
If you use this template, remember that, in WORD, you can color-code events to help make the calendar even more useful for you.
About Ned Barnett:
Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (http://www.barnettmarcom.com), is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.
Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.